5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them

Long before our modern industries developed the cleaning products, industrial solvents, and drugs that can kill when misused, people used simple plants to murder each other. Some plants were especially effective.

1. Nightshade

Atropa Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade. The flowering plant is native to Europe and can grow up to ten feet tall if left to grow for years. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the shiny black berries are most poisonous. The words bella donna mean pretty woman in English. This name may have come from the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes in order to make a woman more attractive to men. Image by Flickr user peganum.

180MacBethThe alkaloid Atropine is one of the the active ingredient in nightshade. Atropine is used during surgery to regulate the heartbeat, decrease salivation, and paralyze muscles. In eye surgery, it relaxes the muscles and dilates the eye. Another drug found in nightshade is scopolamine, which has some of the same properties as atropine, and (in very dilute quantities) is also used for motion sickness and to combat drug addiction. Famous users of nightshade are not confirmed, but legend has it that when Agrippina the Younger hired the serial killer Locusta to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, she used nightshade. Before he became king in 1040, Macbeth supposedly used nightshade to poison an army of Danes who invaded Scotland.

2. Hemlock

550hemlock

Poison hemlock (conium maculatum) is a flowering plant with fleshy, carrotlike roots that can grow up to ten feet tall. This hemlock is no relation to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree in North America. All parts of the poison hemlock plant contain poison alkaloids. If ingested, conium will cause paralysis of various body systems. Paralysis of the respiratory system is the usual cause of death. Meanwhile, a victim can't move but is aware of what is happening as the mind is unaffected until death is imminent.
550socrates

The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was that of Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. The 70-year-old was found guilty of heresy in a trial in Athens. His sentence was death by hemlock, and he had to drink the poison by his own hand. Socrates drank up, then walked around until he noticed his legs were heavy. As shown in this 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates was surrounded by students and adherents as he died.

3. Strychnine

550strychnos

Strychnine is made from seeds of the plant Strychnos nux vomica, found in Asia and Australia. The poison was first isolated from the plant in 1818 by two French chemists. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, who also isolated quinine (used to treat malaria) from its source. Strychnine has been used as a homeopathic remedy (in very diluted form), a performance-enhacing drug for athletes, a slight hallucinogenic used to cut street drugs, and most commonly as rat poison.

150creamStrychnine is an alkaloid (like hemlock or atropine) that paralyzes the victim and causes death by respiratory failure. There is no antidote for strychnine. Dr. Thomas Neil Cream killed at least seven women and one man, possibly many more, between 1878 and 1892 by giving them strychnine as medicine, both in the US and England. After serving ten years of a life sentence in America, he returned to London to continue poisoning his patients. Cream was convicted of murder in England and executed in 1892. Some have speculated that Cream might even be Jack the Ripper, but records indicate that Cream was in prison in the US when the Whitechapel murders occurred.

4. Curare

550curare

Curare is a mixture of various South American natural resources used for poison arrows and blowgun darts. One of the main ingredients is an extract of the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Curare is used for medicinal purposes in a highly diluted form. The main poison is an alkaloid, which causes paralysis and death much in the same way as strychnine and hemlock. However, after the respiratory system becomes paralyzed, the heart may continue beating for quite some time.

180blowgunDeath by curare is relatively slow and horrific, as the victim is awake and aware but cannot move or even speak. However, if artificial respiration is performed until the poison subsides, the victim will survive. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin used curare-laden arrows to hunt game for food. Curare does not affect those who eat the animals who were killed by it. A slightly different recipe for curare is used when the intended target is human, such as that used during tribal war. Curare has also been adapted for use as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

5. Arsenic

550arsenic

Arsenic is a metalloid element, atomic weight 33. It occurs in small amounts in air, water, and soil, and in greater amounts in volcanic ash and in copper and gold mines. Because it kills insects, a compound called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA was used from the 1950s to 2003 to preserve pressure-treated wood. Arsenic has been used in medicines (it was once the indicated treatment for syphilis), chemical warfare, and as a pesticide. Various arsenic compounds are used to color paint and fireworks and as a semiconductor in integrated circuits. It is also used to harden metal for ammunition and the process of bronzing. Image by Flickr user James Laing.

159borgiaArsenic kills by inhibiting the production of necessary enzymes. Small amounts of arsenic ingested over time (possibly through drinking water) can raise the probability of cancer. Acute poisoning causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, vomiting, and death. Murder by arsenic was popular in the Middle Ages as the substance was easy to procure and the symptoms of poisoning resembled those of cholera. Now, evidence of arsenic poisoning is easier to find. Chronic arsenic ingestion can be found months, even years later in the victim's hair and fingernails. The most famous arsenic poisoners were the Borgia family in the Middle Ages. It was said that a little arsenic improved the taste of wine, and the gracious Borgias made sure their guests had the best-tasting wine possible.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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